Main Street program helps revitalize downtown areas on Whidbey Island

Whidbey Island has a total of three Main Street associations.

On a cloudy, sunless day in January, business owner Callahan McVay stops to peer through a telescope at Boy and Dog Park in downtown Langley. Tourists and locals alike have been known to flock to the telescopes to search for whales, a Whidbey Island pastime.

Not many people are aware that the telescopes were installed by the Langley Main Street Association during the COVID-19 pandemic. Even fewer people likely know what the organization’s purpose is, but its influence can be found throughout the Village by the Sea.

The Washington State Main Street Program, established in 1984, consists of 36 communities within the state. The program aims to help revitalize downtown commercial districts through economic, aesthetic and cultural development. To be eligible, at least 50% of buildings within the organization’s defined geographic boundaries must be 50 years of age or older.

Whidbey Island has a total of three Main Street associations: Langley Main Street Association, Coupeville Historic Waterfront Association and Oak Harbor Main Street Association.

Incorporated in 2012 and approved for the state program in 2013, Langley’s is the island’s first Main Street association. A nonprofit organization, it consists of four committees – economic revitalization, design, organization and promotion – and a board of directors.

The telescopes on First Street and Cascade Avenue are just one of Langley Main Street Association’s many projects. The organization is also responsible for a staircase on Anthes Avenue leading up to a parking lot, a bright red bike repair rack and podiums containing historical information that are scattered around the city.

Volunteers help maintain Langley’s well-kept streets, which are teeming with flowers during the warmer months. When it snows, McVay, the organization’s president, plows the city’s sidewalks and alleyways with a snowblower.

“In Langley the most obvious thing is the landscape, because you can see it,” said Janet Ploof, the organization’s vice president and one of its founding members.

A rain garden on Second Street and a tribute garden next to the Langley Library are also notable additions to the city.

Besides maintaining appearances, the Langley Main Street Association provides funding for other projects within the city, such as donating $15,000 to Habitat for Humanity of Island County for its Langley townhomes project. It’s also known for putting on several events around the city, from Spooktacular Langley to the Deck the Doors holiday contest to the Soup Box Derby, which is making a return this year.

Main Street associations typically obtain most of their funding from a tax credit incentive program. Any business owner that pays B&O, or business and occupation, taxes can donate to a Main Street association of their choosing through the state’s tax credit program. The business will receive 75% of the donation back as a WA State B&O tax credit.

Since Main Street associations are nonprofit organizations, they also rely on private donations, as well as grants.

According to Ploof, the Langley Main Street Association’s budget is around $100,000 for this year. Langley’s organization has a membership program – about 100 members pay annual dues of $20 to get on a membership list and stay informed about the association’s happenings.

Up in Coupeville, the Coupeville Historic Waterfront Association was certified as a Main Street program in 2014. Its most well known contribution is Musselfest, the beloved festival dedicated to the mollusk.

In 2022, the association transformed Grace Street into a parklet with seating and planters and commissioned a new bike rack at the entrance to the parklet made by a local artist. All lights on top of the buildings in the historic downtown area and ongoing maintenance is paid for by the association, which added some to three new businesses last year.

In addition, the association has given out grants to improve the facade of historic buildings, including one to repair the roof of the Island County Historical Museum and another for new paint and repair of a building on Front Street.

Jesse Levesque, the executive director of the Coupeville Historic Waterfront Association, said that the organization received a total of $115,000 from B&O tax contributions in 2022. That money is used to fund projects this year.

“I’m hoping to get closer to the cap this year, which is double that amount,” she said.

She welcomes business owners to contact her about signing up for the Main Street tax credit incentive program in 2023. They can also attend an upcoming event at the Greenbank Cidery at 5-7 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 23 covering this topic.

The Oak Harbor Main Street Association is Whidbey Island’s newest Main Street community, receiving official designation in 2016. According to Executive Director Margaret Livermore, about 75% to 80% of funds are derived from B&O tax contributions. That amounted to $201,350 last year.

Some of the association’s notable projects include various murals, historic plaques, colorful LED lights on top of buildings, a new Oak Harbor sign visible from the highway and a pop-up plaza that forms a stage for buskers during the summer months.

Livermore said one exciting project the association is currently working towards is a pedestrian-friendly walkway that will connect Pioneer Way to Oak Harbor’s waterfront. The city has designated $100,000 in ARPA funds for this project, and the association needs to raise an additional $100,000 through grants, donations and fundraisers.

The association also hosts countless events throughout the year, such as the Sasquatch Walk, a St. Patrick’s Day parade, the Green Ticket Cash Giveaway and more.

Like other Main Street associations, Oak Harbor’s relies on volunteers to help beautify the city’s historic downtown area. Every year, the association hosts a spring cleaning where volunteers pull weeds and plant flowers.

Photo by David Welton
Participants in a past Soup Box Derby fly down the street in homemade carts. The popular event has been hosted by the Langley Main Street Association in the past and is slated to make a return this year.

Photo by David Welton Participants in a past Soup Box Derby fly down the street in homemade carts. The popular event has been hosted by the Langley Main Street Association in the past and is slated to make a return this year.